My Fantasy for the Future of Autism Awareness

04/28/2011 10:16 am ET | Updated Jul 05, 2011
  • Todd Drezner Director, 'Loving Lampposts: Living Autistic'

It's April 2021. Still riding high two months after her inauguration, the first female President of the United States (do I even need to mention her name?), pushes her balanced budget through Congress and turns her attention to the upcoming Autism Acceptance Month. At a press conference with parents, autistic children and autistic adults, the President declares, "Like many people across the country, I know autistic people who are living meaningful lives both because of and despite their autism. The United States intends to lead the way in providing services that make autistic people's lives easier and allow them to reach their full potential."

Across the country, thousands of "autism acceptance walks" take place. Because many of the autistic people who participate are particularly sensitive to loud noises, the marches are silent, and the tableau of autistic and neurotypical people marching together in quiet solidarity captures the nation's imagination.

The funds raised by the walks evenly support scientific research, services for autistic adults and public school programs for autistic children in all districts of the country. There is no "cure" for autism, and most people think that that's OK.

Closer to home, my son Sam is almost 17. Although he still needs support in the classroom, he's able to start considering a number of colleges that offer programs specifically designed for autistic students.

Sam has a small but tight-knit group of friends, some on the spectrum and some not. Their habit when one of them says something that the others find obscure (such as when Sam goes on about his favorite fonts) is to say, "Dude, that is so autistic!" Sam claims that this phrase is becoming popular in the wider culture, and I start to believe him when Justin Bieber uses it on Twitter (although some people see this as Bieber's lame attempt to recapture the magic from before he turned 20).

The highlight of the month is when Sam introduces the 10th-anniversary screening of my documentary "Loving Lampposts: Living Autistic" (showing in 3D) at the 1,169-seat Ziegfeld Theatre in Manhattan. As he calls himself a "movie star," it's clear that Sam has no ambivalent feelings about having been featured in a documentary about autism before he was old enough to know he was autistic. Even more amazingly, both at the screening and in general, he exhibits none of the usual disdain that teenagers feel toward their parents.

OK, clearly I'm fantasizing. And why not? The alternative is that 10 years from now, we will still be having the same debates about autism that we're having today, as if we're in some terrible autism version of "Groundhog Day." Who wants to contemplate such a future?

I'm sure that a community as divided as the autism community won't reach the fantasy state I've described in a mere 10 years. But perhaps as another Autism Awareness Month comes to a close, we could agree on a few small things.

My proposal is this: let's start talking about autistic people with a little more respect.

In response to one of my previous articles for The Huffington Post, a blogger at the excellent autism blog Left Brain Right Brain wrote a post that mentioned "The Age of Autism," a book by Dan Olmsted and Mark Blaxill. In particular, Left Brain Right Brain highlighted a passage in which Olmsted and Blaxill write, "Humans are particularly social, yet autism selectively disables the capacity for 'affective contact.' We are novelty seekers, we make tools, explore the globe, and invent new technologies; but autism brutally restricts the interests of the affected."

It's hard to imagine sadder or more inaccurate statements than these -- sad because Olmsted and Blaxill assume that autistic people are uninterested in communicating simply because they don't do it in the same way as the rest of us do, and inaccurate because the writers privilege certain distinctly human qualities (speech, social interaction) over other equally human qualities that are more common among autistic people.

Indeed, Olmsted and Blaxill seem to be unaware that many of the "new technologies" they celebrate were developed by people who, if they aren't on the autism spectrum, at least exhibit some of the qualities of autism. The ability to focus obsessively on one thing and to think in systems sometimes results in the lining up of toy trucks or the memorization of train schedules. And it sometimes results in the invention of the computer (just read up on Alan Turing, for example). Either way, those qualities are just as human as social interaction. To suggest otherwise is helpful to no one.

Statements like Olmsted's and Blaxill's -- and many other similar statements about autism -- arise out of a culture that continues to view disability only as a problem, an illness, something to be rid of. In the 21st century, such attitudes simply won't do.

I know that many parents of autistic children believe that their children are suffering from an illness caused by environmental toxins. But as I read about how sick these children are, I have to ask: if parents of autistic children talk about those children only in terms of illness and deficits, then how will we ever make society more accepting? If my wife and I don't encourage the world to focus on Sam's abilities rather than his challenges, then who will?

So my real autism fantasy this year is that we think a little more before we speak. The next 10 years will pass in the blink of an eye, and a generation of autistic children will be starting to make its way in the world. What kind of world will it be?

Note: Although this is my last article for Autism Awareness Month, I'll continue to blog regularly at The Huffington Post on autism issues and news. Thanks to everyone who's read and commented, and see you soon.